Russian Security Services Plan Wide Surveillance During Sochi Olympics

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 19

On October 7, the well-known Russian experts on the Russian security services Alexander Soldatov and Irina Borogan unveiled a report on the government’s preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics. The report states that the magnitude of spying on visitors during the Olympics will be unprecedented and easily put Russia in first place among previous host countries of the Games. The collection of information will start at the very beginning—when one registers for a so-called Fan’s Passport on the Olympics’ website, https://pass.sochi2014.com. The website requests video and audio connections to the computer of the potential visitor and the information received through the website is transmitted to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). All Sochi Olympics visitors older than two are obliged to receive the Fan’s Passport. The primary means of electronic spying on visitors to the Sochi Olympics will be via the System for Operative Investigative Activities (Sistema Operativno-Rozysknykh Meropriyatiy—SORM). SORM is a technical system for surveillance of the Internet. The government plans to expand the version of SORM so that in Sochi the security services will be able to intercept not only e-mails and cellphone communication, but also communications via Internet messenger services, chats, etc. (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=13362).

Experts traced the government’s preparations for electronic surveillance at the Olympics back to 2010, when a concept for informational security was presented at a conference in Sochi (http://infosystems.ru/assets/files/Sochi%202010/Kuzmin_RNT.pdf). Other security experts, including former members of the Russian security services, say that the new report has little new information and that visitors should not be worried about their privacy. “The security services are interested in people who either are politicians or holders of state secrets,” Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the journal Natsionalnaya Oborona (National Defense), told the Gazeta.ru website. “Why would the security services be interested in athletes and spectators? The Olympiad is such an important event from the standpoint of providing for safety that wasting any operational or technical efforts on anything else […] makes no sense.”

Korotchenko said that during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the KGB, besides preparing for terrorist threats, cleansed the city of political dissidents and various “untrustworthy elements,” although the scale of terrorist threats at the time was radically lower compared to contemporary threats. A historian of the Russian security services, Alexander Kolpakidi, shrugged off the concerns of civilians: “Of course, they [Russian security services] will spy, just in case anything happens, especially as the place is a stone’s throw from Chechnya. Four regions [from east to west, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria] are infested with terrorism and all of them are nearby” (http://www.gazeta.ru/social/2013/10/07/5695813.shtml).

Given the largely domestic terrorist threat posed by the Caucasus Emirate, the decision of the authorities to put Oleg Syromolotov, who was the boss of Russian counter-intelligence in the past, in charge of the security at the Sochi games looks strange, according to experts. In 2010, Syromolotov was put in charge of the preparations for security at the Olympics, even though he had no previous experience in anti-terrorist activities, having spent most of his career in counter-intelligence. So, Soldatov and Borogan conclude that the Russian government regards foreign intelligence services, not rebel leader Doku Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate, as the main threat to the Olympics (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=13362).

In July 2013, Umarov called on his followers to prevent the Olympics in Sochi. Calling the games a “feast on the bones of our ancestors,” Umarov vowed to use “any methods allowed by Allah” to prevent the Olympics from happening. The militant leader also lifted the self-imposed moratorium on attacks against civilians (http://www.newsru.com/russia/03jul2013/umarov_sochi.html).

In May 2012, the Russian and Abkhazian security services claimed they had foiled a terrorist attack in Sochi. The Caucasus Emirate allegedly received support from the Georgian authorities to plan an attack on Olympic sites. The claims, however, were poorly substantiated and were dismissed by many experts (http://www.newsru.com/russia/10may2012/nak.html). In September, 2013, an ethnic Chechen, Yusup Lakaev, was detained in Georgia on charges of resisting law enforcement agencies. Lakaev was reportedly involved in the killing of the Russian vice-consul in Abkhazia, Dmitry Vishernev (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/230353/). Some sources connected Lakaev to the Caucasus Emirate and the Sochi Olympics, but evidence revealing a terrorist plan by the North Caucasian militants is scant.

A little-known hacker group, Anonymous Caucasus, attacked the websites of several big Russian banks in October (http://www.securitylab.ru/news/445718.php). The group’s banner says “Attacking Russian websites & Services & Computers & DDoS is not Hacking! It’s a protest; it’s speech, it’s our freedom” (https://www.facebook.com/AnonyCaucasus). The appearance of such a group is a relatively new phenomenon in the North Caucasus. The group is apparently trying to use the Olympics to draw the attention of the world community to the situation in the North Caucasus.

Apart from the surveillance of Internet traffic and phone calls, the government intends to make use of video surveillance devices: 5,500 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have been installed in Sochi. The security services also plan to use drones to provide security during the Olympics. Perhaps the most extravagant protection devices the Russian Ministry of Defense bought for the Olympics were two sonar systems that could locate submarines and prevent attacks from the sea (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=13362).

The Russian security services’ preparations for thwarting terrorist attacks during the Sochi Olympics show that they may be preparing not so much for preventing attacks as for spying on foreigners and making sure civil activists in Russia and the North Caucasus are unable to attract public attention to their causes.